Style and substance: Guantánamo lawyers back Obama


The US flag at Guantanamo

Now here’s an interesting development. A close study of the front-runners in the Presidential primaries reveals that all have called for the closure of Guantánamo, with the exception of Mitt Romney, who famously declared, during a televised GOP debate last May, “I am glad [the detainees] are at Guantánamo. I don’t want them on our soil. I want them on Guantánamo, where they don’t get the access to lawyers they get when they’re on our soil. I don’t want them in our prisons, I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantánamo. My view is we ought to double Guantánamo.”

Barack ObamaBoth of the Democrat front-runners –- Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton –- have made a point of including plans to close the prison on their websites. Senator Obama’s site includes a commitment to restore habeas corpus to the Guantánamo detainees, and a speech he made in Washington D.C. last August, in which he declared, “in the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantánamo, we have compromised our most precious values. What could have been a call to a generation has become an excuse for unchecked presidential power. A tragedy that united us was turned into a political wedge issue used to divide us.”

He added, “When I am President, America will reject torture without exception. America is the country that stood against that kind of behavior, and we will do so again,” and made the following pledge with regard to Guantánamo, “I also will reject a legal framework that does not work. There has been only one conviction at Guantánamo. It was for a guilty plea on material support for terrorism. The sentence was nine months. There has not been one conviction of a terrorist act. I have faith in America’s courts, and I have faith in our JAGs [the military lawyers of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps]. As President, I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists.”

Hillary ClintonHillary Clinton’s website also includes a prominent call for the closure of Guantánamo, although she is vaguer on the details, and, as the Miami Herald has pointed out, “she has not prominently included pledges to do it in her campaign speeches.” The following comment was made during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last April: “Guantánamo has become associated in the eyes of the world with a discredited administration policy of abuse, secrecy, and contempt for the rule of law. Rather than keeping us more secure, keeping Guantánamo open is harming our national interests. It compromises our long-term military and strategic interests, and it impairs our standing overseas. I have certainly concluded that we should address any security issues on what to do with the remaining detainees, and then close it once and for all.”

John McCainOf the Republicans, John McCain remains as opposed to the existence of Guantánamo as he is to torture, although he apparently believes in the much-criticized system of trials by Military Commission (and does not appear to have included his opposition to Guantánamo on his website). Speaking to 60 Minutes last April, he declared, “I would close Guantánamo Bay. And I would move those prisoners to Fort Leavenworth. And I would proceed with the tribunals.” He went on to explain, “Guantánamo Bay has become an image throughout the world which has hurt our reputation. Whether we deserve it or not, the reality is Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib have harmed our reputation in the world, thereby harming our ability to win the psychological part of the war against radical Islamic extremism.”

Even Mike Huckabee joined in recently, explaining, after meeting a group of retired generals who were urging all the candidates to commit to opposing torture, that he supported the closure of Guantánamo. That wasn’t what he said last June, however, when he conceded that the government’s handling of Guantánamo had come to symbolize “what’s gone wrong” in the fight against terrorism, but concluded that it was better to err “on the side of protecting the American people,” adding, contentiously, that conditions for detainees in Guantánamo –- who are, of course, held without charge or trial –- were better than in US prisons on the mainland.

Talk is fine, of course, and it’s admirable, I think, that any of the candidates mentioned above would go out of their way to pledge the closure of Guantánamo, when it still, sadly, remains a marginal issue compared to the war in Iraq and the usual dominant concerns of the electorate: the economy, healthcare and education.

Given that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have expressed their desire to close Guantánamo in no uncertain terms, it’s a tribute to the substance of Senator Obama’s involvement in the plans to shut the prison (as opposed to the oft-repeated opinion that his visionary charisma is not necessarily backed up by solid policies) that 85 lawyers for the Guantánamo detainees, including many who have become known to me during my research for The Guantánamo Files and its subsequent promotion (plus a judge and two retired rear admirals), have singled out his campaign for their endorsement, citing his “extraordinary leadership on this critical and controversial issue,” and providing concrete examples of his commitment to closing Guantánamo once and for all.

The full text of the lawyers’ letter –- and its signatories –- is reproduced below.


January 28, 2008

Dear Friends:

We are at a critical point in the Presidential campaign, and as lawyers who have been deeply involved in the Guantánamo litigation to preserve the important right to habeas corpus, we are writing to urge you to support Senator Obama.

The Administration’s Guantánamo policies have undercut our values at home and stained our reputation around the world. All of us are lawyers who have worked on the Guantánamo habeas corpus litigation for many years, some of us since early 2002, and we were all deeply involved in opposing the Administration’s attempt to overturn the Supreme Court’s Rasul decision by stripping the courts of jurisdiction to hear the Guantánamo cases. We have talked with Senator Obama about why the Guantánamo litigation is so significant, and we have worked closely with Senator Obama in the fight to preserve habeas corpus.

Some politicians are all talk and no action. But we know from first-hand experience that Senator Obama has demonstrated extraordinary leadership on this critical and controversial issue. When others stood back, Senator Obama helped lead the fight in the Senate against the Administration’s efforts in the Fall of 2006 to strip the courts of jurisdiction, and when we were walking the halls of the Capitol trying to win over enough Senators to beat back the Administration’s bill, Senator Obama made his key staffers and even his offices available to help us. Senator Obama worked with us to count the votes, and he personally lobbied colleagues who worried about the political ramifications of voting to preserve habeas corpus for the men held at Guantánamo. He has understood that our strength as a nation stems from our commitment to our core values, and that we are strong enough to protect both our security and those values. Senator Obama demonstrated real leadership then and since, continuing to raise Guantánamo and habeas corpus in his speeches and in the debates.

The writ of habeas corpus dates to the Magna Carta, and was enshrined by the Founders in our Constitution. The Administration’s attack on habeas corpus rights is dangerous and wrong. America needs a President who will not triangulate this issue. We need a President who will restore the rule of law, demonstrate our commitment to human rights, and repair our reputation in the world community. Based on our work with him, we are convinced that Senator Obama can do this because he truly feels these issues “in his bones.”

We urge you to support Senator Obama.

We encourage you to forward this message to anyone who might be interested.

Gary A. Isaac (Chicago, Illinois)
Elizabeth P. Gilson (New Haven, Connecticut)
Joshua Colangelo Bryan (New York, New York)
Thomas B. Wilner (Washington, DC)
Ismail Alsheik (Chicago, Illinois)
Diane Marie Amann (Berkeley, California)
Elizabeth Arora (Washington, DC)
Baher Azmy (Brooklyn, New York)
Scott Barker (Denver, Colorado)
Douglas Behr (Potomac, Maryland)
G. Michael Bellinger (Glen Ridge, New Jersey)
Amanda Shafer Berman (Washington, DC)
Catherine A. Bernard (Chicago, Illinois)
Carolyn Patty Blum (New York, New York)
Patricia A. Bronte (Chicago, Illinois)
Carol Elder Bruce (McLean, Virginia)
Charles Carpenter (Washington, DC)
Jennifer Ching (Brooklyn, New York)
George M. Clarke (Washington, DC)
Jerry Cohen (Boston, Massachusetts)
John J. Connolly (Baltimore, Maryland)
David J. Cynamon (Chevy Chase, Maryland)
Joshua W. Denbeaux (Westwood, New Jersey)
Mark P. Denbeaux (Newark, New Jersey)
James Dorsey (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
Rebecca Dick (Arlington, Virginia)
Wells Dixon (New York, New York)
Heather Lewis Donnell (Chicago, Illinois)
Buz Eisenberg (Ashfield, Massachusetts)
Marc Falkoff (Chicago, Illinois)
Tina Monshipour Foster (Queens, New York)
Murray Fogler (Houston, Texas)
Matthew Freimuth (New York, New York)
Hon. John J. Gibbons (Newark, New Jersey)
Jared Goldstein (Providence, Rhode Island)
R. David Gratz (Westwood, New Jersey)
Eldon Greenberg (Washington, DC)
Dean Donald J. Guter, Rear Admiral, JAGC, USN (Ret.)
(Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
Gitanjali Gutierrez (Ithaca, New York)
Jonathan Hafetz (Brooklyn, New York)
Osman A. Handoo (Falls Church, Virginia)
Sarah Havens (New York, New York)
Gaillard T. Hunt (Silver Spring, Maryland)
Kristine Huskey (Austin, Texas)
Varda Hussain (Arlington, Virginia)
Dean John D. Hutson, Rear Admiral, JAGC, USN (Ret.)
(Concord, New Hampshire)
Thomas R. Johnson (Portland, Oregon)
Stephen J. Kane (Chicago, Illinois)
Zachary Katznelson (San Francisco, California)
Michael Y. Kieval (Bethesda, Maryland)
Daniel Kirschner (New York, New York)
Jan Kitchel (Portland, Oregon)
Eric Lewis (Bethesda, Maryland)
Ellen Lubell (Newton, Massachusetts)
Lawrence S. Lustberg (Newark, New Jersey)
J. Triplett Mackintosh (Denver, Colorado)
Emi MacLean (New York, New York)
Brian D. Maddox (Brooklyn, New York)
Neil McGaraghan (Boston, Massachusetts)
Brent Mickum (Bethesda, Maryland)
Nicole M. Moen (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
Daniel P. Moylan (Baltimore, Maryland)
Richard G. Murphy, Jr. (Washington, DC)
William J. Murphy (Baltimore, Maryland)
Brian J. Neff (South Orange, New Jersey)
Stephen H. Oleskey (Boston, Massachusetts)
Charles H.R. Peters (Chicago, Illinois)
Kit A. Pierson (Washington, DC)
Jason Pinney (Boston, Massachusetts)
Wesley R. Powell (New York, New York)
Robert D. Rachlin (Burlington, Vermont)
Jana Ramsey (Brooklyn, New York)
Michael Ratner (New York, New York)
David H. Remes (Silver Spring, Maryland)
Jeffrey D. Robinson (Laurel, Maryland)
Brent Rushforth (Washington, DC)
James C. Schroeder (Chicago, Illinois)
Jessica Sherman (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
Michael J. Sternhell (Brooklyn, New York)
Jeffrey M. Strauss (Chicago, Illinois)
Mark Sullivan (Bedford Hills, New York)
Danielle R. Voorhees (Denver, Colorado)
Vincent Warren (New York, New York)
Carolyn Welshhans (Arlington, Virginia)
P. Sabin Willett (Boston, Massachusetts)
Jill M. Williamson (Takoma Park, Maryland)
Elizabeth A. Wilson (Washington, DC)
Jeff Wu (Rockville, Maryland)

For further information, contact Gary A. Isaac at (312) 701-7025.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

A version of this article was published on the Huffington Post.

3 Responses

  1. Democrats @ 2008 Presidential Election » Style and substance: Guantánamo lawyers back Obama says...

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  2. 2008 Presidential Election » Style and substance: Guantánamo lawyers back Obama says...

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  3. Mike Parker says...

    Too bad you didn’t mention Ron Paul, who is the only candidate of either party who has opposed the Iraq war, warrantless wiretapping, and rights-free detentions. The disdain shown him by Republicans and the Republican Party has been shameful.

    I thoroughly disagree with Obama’s economic policies, but I see him as the best hope among the mainstream candidates to end the horror that American foreign policy has become.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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